Escaping Alcatraz: Swimming in the San Francisco Bay

As someone who swam competitively in high school and played in pickup water polo games in college, I was intrigued when I heard that you could swim in the San Francisco Bay. Not only could you swim in the bay but you could swim from Alcatraz Island to the city, a 1.5 mile (about 2.4 km) swim, in cold, open water.

Alcatraz’s History

As were many others, I was fascinated with the island ever since my first trip to the bay. If you don’t know, Alcatraz Island held the most notorious criminals in the 1930s.For the 29 years the prison was open they claim not a single prisoner escaped. Five people made it off the island and were never found again; two prisoners downed in the cold water. Its legend that the prison had only hot water showers so that the prisoners would be shocked by the cold water if they ever tried to escape (No idea if that’s true).

Now the island operates as a tourist destination. I would be remiss if I didn’t also mention that the island was originally Native American land that was taken. After the prison shut down a group of Native Americans tried to reclaim the land since it was no longer being used; they occupied the island for 19 months before a blockade was put up and they could no longer get food and supplies to the Island. Many people believe that the land was turned into a National Park to stop the Native Americans from reclaiming the land.

You can now visit the island and take a guided audio tour through the prison grounds.

Alcatraz photo
Photo by Anosmia

Why Swim It?

Each year, hundreds of people make the swim from the Island to the mainland. I had thought about swimming it ever since I moved to the Bay but I was scared. When my ex and I broke up I realized that I had gotten too comfortable with being comfortable. It had been a long time since I pushed myself to do something difficult. And my fear to conquer the swim represented my fear to try anything that I could fail at. So I committed myself to not only the swim but the true escape experience which included a 7 mile (about 11.3 km) run immediately after the swim. Unfortunately I didn’t have enough time to train to swim it that summer.  Instead I volunteered at an event. I wanted a chance to see it in action, to talk to some of the swimmers and get some advice.

Volunteering

I was shocked to see such a variety of people swimming the event. I saw young children (13 years old!) and old women (I think the oldest was 70 something!) I saw people of all sizes; I saw a man who only had one leg make the swim. That summer, at a different event, three blind people with guides completed the swim (WOW!).  I also saw people’s neck bleeding down their backs from rubbing against their wetsuits, and I saw a lot of people without wet suits. I was still scared, and knew it would be a lot of work, but I felt more confident that I could swim it if I tried.

The journey is more important than the destination

I started running slowly, using the Couch to 5km App to slowly increase my pace. I knew that if I really wanted to commit to running more I’d have to join a group to keep me motivated, otherwise, I’d fall through. I found NorCalOutside, a group that met at the old track on Berkeley’s campus. (This group is no longer active but if you’re looking for a running group in Oakland/Berkeley I highly recommend Lululemon’s Run Club, most of the people I met run there as well). Most of NorCalOutside’s members were training for the Oakland and Berkeley Half and Full Marathons. Looking back on it, I’m really bummed that I didn’t decide to at least complete the half. Through them I met some AMAZING people. I had fun on every single one of our workouts, and made friends who gave me shit if I missed a run and were always willing to grab a drink afterwards. I wanted to just make sure I could make the 7 mile run, but four months before my race, I was completing a 10 mile run over the brand new Bay Bridge. I never would have imagined increasing my running pace and distance so quickly but they pushed me and made the experience much more fun than I ever thought possible.

 Photos above taken by Yuan Zhu, one of the greatest photographers and athletes that I know.

 

Meanwhile, I started swimming in the pool at Berkeley’s gym. I stopped counting laps, because counting to a mile is just way too much, and started increasing my time, swimming for 30 minutes straight, then 35, 40 and so on. In April, 4 months before my race, I drove to Sports Basement and rented a wetsuit. I originally was looking into swimming with Swim Art, but driving into the city even once a week to get to the Marina seemed like a stretch.  I lived less than two miles away from the Berkeley Marina, there had to be a way to swim there. I found Odyssey Open Water, an awesome group that now plans swims throughout the bay area. They swim on Sunday mornings and Tuesday nights. Perfect.

Warren, the founder of Odyssey sets up swim buoys and measures out their distance so that you can plan your own course length. Usually you could swim anywhere from a quarter mile to two miles using his buoys to measure your course. He also kayaks near the swimmers the whole time in case of an emergency or if you just get a leg cramp and want to hang on his kayak to take a break.

The first time I jumped in the bay I had a momentary panic attack. After swimming in a pool, where I could always see the floor, swimming in green, milky water where I couldn’t even see my hand in front of my face freaked me out, and it was cold, and I had to raise my head out of the water to see where in the world I was going and the current and waves push you around.  I didn’t go very far that first day but slowly each week I lengthened my course. After I was out of town for a few weeks a swim was scheduled to go from Berkeley Marina to Emeryville and back. A 2.8 mile swim! I probably shouldn’t have swum it after being out of the water, but I couldn’t help myself. After getting leg cramps halfway there, I made it there and back. The guy on a paddleboard spotting me for safety said I shouldn’t have any problem with the Alcatraz swim.

The Swim & The Run

The swim itself was bittersweet. Being on the boat and jumping into the water was exhilarating as was talking to the other swimmers as we sat on the boat. But swimming with over 300 people in the water, not fun! I got kicked, pushed and couldn’t swim my fastest because of how many people were in front of me. If I were to do the swim again I would sign up with a smaller group, like Odyssey, even though it typically costs more. The run started in Aquatic Park and ended right below the Golden Gate Bridge. If you know SF you know that this means the very start of the run is up the huge hill going through Fort Mason. Ah! Once I made it over the hill I thought, ok it’s the home stretch, even though I still had 6 miles to run. I didn’t really think about the fact that the run didn’t really have any turns beforehand. When you run 3.5 mile straight it feels a lot longer! But I made it through, during the run it honestly didn’t feel like I had just swum a mile and a half. Running through Crissy Field with the bay on your right and the Golden Gate Bridge in front of you is extremely motivating. As is going back down the Fort Mason hill right before the finish line; that last half mile went by so fast.

My Results: I finished the 1.5 mile swim in 48:45 and the 7 mile run in 1:02:16 for a total time of 1:51:01 not including my transition.

Totally Stolen Photo. Of the jump off the boat.
Totally Stolen Photo. Of the jump off the boat.

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Upon Reflection

Completing the race made me feel stronger than I ever thought possible, not only physically but mentally as well. I also felt exhausted; literally, I think I took a 2 hour nap later that afternoon.  The race itself wasn’t truly the important part, but training, meeting people, and pushing myself is what I really took away. I have never been prouder of anything I’ve done (and I graduated with my Master’s degree two months before this event.) I started training to complete the event and I learned more about myself than I ever thought possible.

 

FAQs

When I would tell people I was training for this event, and now after I’ve completed it, I tend to get a lot of the same questions. Here are those questions and their answers:

1) Is it safe? Yes, there are dozens of kayakers and lifeboats surrounding you during your swim. If you have any problems or get too far off course they will pull you out of the water. One person has died trying to make the swim (well other than the actual escapees of the prison). He had a preexisting heart condition and had a heart attack within seconds of entering the water. Talking to the EMTs while volunteering, I was told they typically only see superficial neck injuries from wetsuits and dehydration.

2) Aren’t there sharks? Yes and no. Yes, but they’re too small to do any real damage, and tend to stay away from people.  Okay, there’s a few bigger species, but there’s never been an attack in the bay.

3) Do you need a wetsuit? In the summer the water in the bay gets up to 70 F, but down to the 50’s in the winter. All of the swims are in the summer. I chose to rent a suit from Sports Basement but it’s not necessary.

4) Isn’t the bay dirty and gross? Eh, kinda, near the shore the water can be a bit dirty and in the middle of the bay there’s oil from the ships. During one of my training swims in Berkeley there was an extremely low tide. We stepped off the dock and I was up to my thighs in mud. Ya. Gross. But really it’s not toxic or anything.

5) Don’t boats cross through the middle of the bay? During the larger swims the bay is closed to traffic between the Island and the mainland so that the boats are not a problem. I’m not sure about the smaller swims.

Other Info:

I highly recommend swimming with Odyssey Open Water if you are in the bay area. I’ve heard good things about Swim Art as well if you’re in SF. There’s also a ton of other open water events in the SF Bay. You can swim from Sausalito side to the SF side, around Angel Island and there’s the epic 10km Bridge to Bridge swim (from the Bay Bridge to the Golden Gate).  The event I actually completed is called Escape from the Rock.

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Megan is from sunny California and is currently living in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. She funds her travels by teaching students with learning challenges and students applying to U.S. universities. She loves traveling like a local, eating amazing food and is always up for an adventure. Check out her about me section to learn more!

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